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The Pope’s Appeasement is Making Catholicism More Chinese

Be warned: the thaw between the Vatican and Xi Jinping brings the faith one step closer to sinicization.

Pope Francis greets faithful from China as he arrives for his weekly general audience on April 18, 2018, on St. Peter's square in the Vatican. (TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

As hundreds of millions of Catholics across the globe gathered to attend Mass on September 22, 2019, another celebration was taking place. The day marked the first anniversary of the historic deal reached between the Vatican and China on Chinese bishop appointments. It was the culmination of years of building trust and budding ties. 

Yet the situation for China’s underground Catholic community has been anything but celebratory, as government intimidation and persecution persist. Warming bilateral ties, encapsulated by the agreement, have signaled something else too—the Chinese government’s plan to sinicize Catholicism—that is, to control it. 

Just one year into his papacy, in 2014, Pope Francis became the first leader of the Catholic Church to enter Chinese airspace. At 30,000 feet, the fabled “Shepherd One” cruised over the communist country en route to Seoul for an apostolic visit. Pope Francis’s telegram for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the likewise freshly appointed leader, and his nearly 1.4 billion constituents, was one of reverence and grace—standard papal style.

The high-altitude episode reflected an emerging thaw in the historically frosty relations that began when diplomatic ties were severed in 1951. The split eventually led to a fissure between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-sanctioned Catholic Church and the “underground” (unregistered) church still loyal to the Vatican. 

On September 22, 2018, years of secret negotiations produced a diplomatic breakthrough. The Holy See and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, a decades-long sticking point between the two factions. As a result, both sides agreed to share authority in approving Chinese bishops, though the deal did not make clear as to who had the final say. Every Chinese bishop now had the Supreme Pontiff’s seal of approval

The controversial pact also saw Pope Francis lift an excommunication of seven Chinese clergymen who had been appointed by the CCP without Vatican approval. Critics of the undisclosed deal accused the pope of selling out the underground church. Supporters, conversely, pointed to papal precedents of similar arrangements with secular powers and argued that such concessions were necessary to advance religious freedom. Then, in late August, two Chinese bishops were separately consecrated under the opaque agreement’s framework. The news also came on the heels of the first lecture ever given on the subject of Pope Francis at a secular university in China, according to Chinese state tabloid Global Times.

As ties between Rome and Beijing reach historic highs, a religious renaissance in the officially atheist China has provoked periodic clampdowns. Well-known Protestant churches have been forcefully closed, “illegal” mosques and temples torn down, visible religious symbols like crosses removed, and prominent spiritual leaders detained. Some Chinese municipalities even sent out notices last year discouraging Christmas celebrations and online sales of the Bible were restricted. Amid such heavy-handed actions, Chinese officials have invoked the “sinicization of religion” as a strategic aspiration, which has coincided with a rise in the persecution of Christians

From top Chinese leadership down to lower-level party bureaucrats, sinicization is a loosely defined concept that involves assimilating religion into mainstream Chinese culture and molding faith around core socialist values and party-led ethnonationalism. In layman’s terms, it’s merely a slogan used to ensure the CCP’s control over every facet of religious life. That goes for all five officially recognized, state-approved religions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, and Taoism—and the hundreds of millions of Chinese who embrace their teachings. All other unsanctioned religions are officially illegal yet widely tolerated to various degrees. On the political tolerance scale, “native” faiths like Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and folk religions receive the most clemency, whereas spiritual practices such as Falun Gong incur none.

“Overall, sinicization is just a code word for control. There’s no content behind it,” remarked Ian Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. Johnson added that “they [the Chinese government] don’t want more Chinese-style architecture in mosques or churches; they don’t want more Chinese hymns to be written for church…there’s nothing programmatic about it. It’s just a slogan.” 

Elements of sinicization have existed in party rhetoric and policy for years. Under Xi, its first hints emerged in a speech given at UNESCO’s headquarters in 2014, where he praised Buddhism’s contributions to Chinese culture after it had integrated with local schools of thought. 

The use of sinicization as an official slogan was only recently adopted and subsequently amplified during the Xi administration. A speech delivered in 2016 for a rarely convened meeting on religious matters cemented its importance. In it, Xi stressed the need to continue sinicization and prevent “outside” forces (read: Christianity and Islam) from using religion. The message was hammered home at the 19th Party Congress one year later. Xi affirmed that all religions in China must be “Chinese in orientation” and called on party officials to help religious society adapt to “socialist society.” (Translation: religion can’t be controlled if it’s not “Chinese.”) 

State-run “patriotic religious associations,” which oversee China’s five major religions, got the memo loud and clear. The associations have each since outlined five-year sinicization plans—albeit to varying degrees of success. One of the top officials in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association recently spoke of Catholicism’s “ups and downs” since being introduced to China, and admonished the creed for failing to integrate with Chinese culture. The antidote, in his view: more sinicization. 

The issue of religion, specifically foreign ones, has been an area of both curiosity and concern for Xi. Years before zhongguohua (sinicization) became standard vernacular for party apparatchiks, the Chinese leader allegedly had one question for a Chinese reporter during a visit to the United States: “Why do so many Chinese students studying in the U.S. become Christians?” Fast forward to 2018 and the party’s “core leader” is overseeing major bureaucratic restructuring and revised regulations on religion, further tightening the CCP’s regulatory grasp over religious worship within its borders—mainly Christianity and Islam. The updated rules reinforce existing registration requirements and enhance legal scrutiny over religious activity and foreign influences. One stipulation, for instance, forbids any online religious content that disrupts “harmony” within and between religions.

Incremental rapprochement between the world’s oldest running institution and the current representatives of one of history’s oldest civilizations has brought Catholicism one step closer to becoming more “Chinese.” Recent concessions by the Vatican have exported ecclesiastical sovereignty to an autocratic government with a questionable track record of keeping its end of the bargain and a predilection to stamp out groups deemed troublesome. In June, the Holy See Press Office acknowledged that in the aftermath of the bishop deal, “intimidatory pressures” were used against underground Catholic Church communities. And in November, Chinese Bishop Guo Xijin reportedly fled state custody and went into hiding after refusing to bring his church under the state-sanctioned patriotic association, according to the Catholic publication Asianews.it.

While normalizing relations helps advance Pope Francis’s personal mission of unifying the 10 to 12 million Catholics in China (nearly half of whom worship in underground churches), it also helps alleviate one of Xi Jinping’s biggest political headaches—getting rid of underground churches. “They [Chinese authorities] want to essentially eliminate the unregistered religious groups; they want everyone to be under the big tent of the government,” said Johnson. “That’s why you have the deal with the Vatican and the crackdown on a few key churches.” 

Chinese authorities can argue that underground churches are superfluous in addition to being “illegal” now that every Chinese priest has the pope’s blessing as a result of the bishop agreement. The government’s goal is thus to pressure parishioners out of the underground church and into the registered visibility of the state-backed “patriotic” Catholic Church. In doing so, they are gradually expunging Catholicism outside of party purview and effectively sinicizing the Catholic faith—in essence, controlling Catholic religious life.

The Holy See’s appeasement today mirrors that of nearly a century ago but with key differences. In 1939, after decades of hostility, the Vatican agreed to accept certain Confucian customs, which led to diplomatic ties with the then-Nationalist government of the Republic of China (ROC) on the mainland. Now, instead of accommodating a philosophical doctrine, the Catholic Church is placating a political one—“Xi Jinping Thought,” Xi’s party-centric ideological roadmap for national rejuvenation. This time, warming ties will inevitably lead to Rome swapping diplomatic alliances from Taiwan to China, something Vatican officials have openly expressed before. For the time being, such a development is unknown—and so are the fates of some 30 to 40 underground Chinese bishops.

Don Giolzetti is a freelance writer who recently moved back to the States after living and working in China for nine years. He’s written articles about China-related issues for CNN and The Diplomat, as well as organizations such as AmCham Shanghai.

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